Vinyl Saved My Life: A Tribute to Biz Markie
Pharoahe Monch pays tribute to his fallen friend
I envisioned an overcrowded Chinatown, and those glazed shiny ducks rotating around in the display windows of the restaurants. I remember feeling mournful for the ducks; their skin dripping with grease and crackling, the flames scorching their meat to the bone like a sacrifice for all to see. I would stop mid-stride against the determined shoppers and think, “that’s really fucking disgusting.” But today, I’m totally convinced those ducks had it way better than I did. For on this day I would find myself on a bus without working air conditioning—stuffed in the middle bunk of twelve sleeping compartments. Even though I had survived New York City summers, where the heat rising off the pavement would distort buildings and create optical illusions that made the buildings do sexy belly dances. This was a different type of heat, this was southern Virginia heat. The leaves on the trees were afraid to move for fear of angering the branches. Everything stood at attention like cheap Woolworth mannequins. As the tour bus pulled in front of the hotel, the driver immediately knew that the height of the bus would not fit under the awning in the front entrance. He swung the bus around the back of the parking lot like he was driving a Volkswagen Jetta, and took up about ten parking spaces as he had no other choice but to park horizontally against the designated lines that had faded from the sun’s oppression.
Biz Mark was the first artist off the bus; this was usually the routine. Biz would continuously ask the driver in 30-minute intervals, “How far are we from the hotel?” For the past three cities I would lumber behind—always the last one off—but today I wanted to join Biz Mark in what had become a ritual. We were on the Source Magazine tour. Lord Finesse, Cooley Live, the Almighty RSO, Red Hot Lover Tone, Roxanne Shanté, and Organized Konfusion w/ O.C. I became intrigued with Biz’s ritual at this point so I followed behind. I shadowed him into the hotel lobby as he walked in and slumped his torso over the front desk. “Gimme the yellow pages,” he said while simultaneously snatching a washcloth from his back pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead. I watched Biz from the side of my eyes as he opened the phone book almost perfectly in the middle. “Ehwa, Ehwa, Rrer! Ecka, Ecka, Eeee . . .” He licked his fingers each time he swiped through the book. The kind, elderly white woman at the front desk with her sweet southern hospitality stared at him over the top of her glasses. When Biz got to the R section he snatched the page right out of the book and the woman gasped. “Can you call me a cab please?” When he talked, he sounded exactly like his records—extremely funky. His speaking voice made you want to put a beat under his sentences. “I’m going with you, Biz!” I tried to say with some authority but I imagine it hit his ears more like a question. I was nervous. “Okay, you better come now. I’m leaving as soon as the cab gets here,” he replied. My face was as stoic as it is to this day. I had a huge smile, but only on the inside, somewhere underneath my heart, just above my stomach.
Digging is an extremely calming practice to partake in once you’ve mastered it. The owners of record stores tend to be music lovers themselves and welcome their patrons. Usually there’s classic jazz or soul playing while you dig. Becoming a producer snatched a lot of the joy out of digging for me because finding a rare gem could be the difference in making or breaking a career. So it was a very intense process in the ’90s; everyone took it seriously. You would see the likes of Prince B, Pete Rock, The Beatnuts, Large Pro, Lord Finesse, Showbiz, and Q-Tip at NYC record conventions. I would stare at my heroes more than I would search for records. I was still a novice during the Source tour, so I jumped at the opportunity to go gold mining with Biz. The taxi pulled up to a vintage record store that had 45s in the window—hell, this place still had 78 rpm vinyl. You could smell old cardboard and molded wood as soon as you opened the door. A tall, elderly black man with a salt and pepper George Jefferson never removed his eyes from his newspaper when we walked in. I didn’t want to follow Biz around the store looking over his shoulder, so I pretended like I knew what I was doing. The hope was in these situations the owner would not realize what treasures they actually had and subsequently sell them under value.
Biz had already amassed a crate of records before he stopped to even ask me if I was looking for anything specific. I rambled off a couple titles to sound cool. “Electric Prunes, you know, um, Eugene McDaniels’ Headless Heroes of The Apocalypse album.” I had saw one of the vendors at the record convention in NYC with the Apocalypse, but to my recollection, I think he was selling it for $100, and that was more than I could afford. Who would’ve thought I’d stumble upon the album that day? Fingering through my tenth box of records, it felt like I flicked the last four albums in super slow motion. I saw the infamous fiery red album cover—it felt too good to be true. I let out a piercing “wooOOOoo” (exactly the same one I do today)! It was the first time the old man looked up from his newspaper. He looked at me like “Boy if you don’t shut the hell up?! You don’t see I’m trying to read?” I held all my excitement inside after that. My jaws were like Dizzy Gillespie’s. It felt like I was going to explode. I was quite content with just that one find, so I went and sat down directly in front of the giant metal fan that guarded the front of the store like a sentinel. I took out my inhaler and took a couple of hits; digging for records can be pretty dangerous for asthmatics. A lot of cats who didn’t even suffer from the disease would wear bandanas around their mouths while digging. The dust and mildew in those old stores could suffocate a silverback gorilla. I waited impatiently for Biz to finish. I had the one record I came for.
We were finally ready to go, thank God! By now the heat and the dust in the store had me worried about being able to perform that night. I waited for Biz to cash out, my purchase had only cost me $9, probably saving me $95. Biz brought so many records he had to call his cousin Jeff to drive us back to the hotel. We loaded the crates in the trunk of the car and headed to soundcheck; Biz advised me to store my record with his—safely inside the crates to protect the record from warping from the heat—and I did. Jeff was mad cool and just as funny as Biz Mark, he cracked jokes about the heat as he drove me to soundcheck. His car had air conditioning, it was asthmatic heaven. When we arrived at the venue I looked at the walk from the car to the back entrance like the runway to hell. Biz said, “Come on, what you waiting for? Jesus?” and they kicked me out of the car, I was the only one getting out. Biz was a seasoned veteran; he didn’t need to check his sound. I reluctantly made the ten-step walk of death. The show was amazing that night. I remember being too young and excited to properly appreciate the fact I was living out my dream, I was just living life. We finished our set and went to the front of the house to watch Biz.
There were more girls in attendance than the previous cities, Virginia was one of the premier historical black college states. It was packed and the room was filled with anticipation. I noticed a young lady looking directly at me, her eyes were determined, as if to say, yes you! I still looked around the room and behind me for some other person she could have possibly been searching for. She couldn’t be looking at me. I was hunched, asthmatic, and chubby, swollen from water retention. Her posture looked like her mother made her walk around the house balancing school books on her head. She stood perfectly straight, and wore a glittering dress that was awkwardly too highbrow for a hip hop show. After the show ended, people gathered to exchange beeper numbers and discuss hip hop. I spotted the girl with perfect posture, she walked over to say hello exactly how I imagined her mother trained her. I’m sure she had been entered into pageants she probably hated as a child. She had a thick southern accent and made a usually uncomfortable moment for me extremely pleasant. “Hi, my name is Charlene.” she extended her hand as she crossed one leg behind the other as she stopped. The club had an early curfew, but the night had just begun by New York standards, so I invited her out for something to eat. That’s when I noticed a couple of locals eyeballing me from across the room. They were visibly pissed off. “Hey Charlene,” I said, “if you could just turn around inconspicuously, you’ll notice three dudes ice grilling us right now. You wouldn’t happen to know them, would you?” I raised her hand above her head and spun her around slowly like a porcelain ballerina doll in a glass display case. “Nuh uh, I don’t know them boys from a can of paint,” she replied. It was the first time I heard that saying.
Over the years I’ve learned to take pride in my ability to diffuse volatile situations, but contrary to belief, beef was a welcomed occurrence for my crew. I automatically knew everyone would have my back because I’m usually not the one to instigate. I feel like these kinds of altercations were simply a part of the culture in the early ’90s; maybe we were just young, stupid, and full of testosterone. In any event, we were twenty deep and that alone afforded me the balls to be an asshole. “What in the fuck are y’all looking at!” I said while moving Charlene slowly behind me. They didn’t flinch. “Um looking at yo ass, mo fuckah!” Their reaction was all that was needed before every artist on the tour intervened. A little pushing and shoving broke out but nothing too serious. I wasn’t even able to finish jawing off with the guys before security escorted them out of the club.
Two gigantic country strong ass police officers stormed inside the club in a rage. They were just itching to arrest anyone who didn’t comply with the inaudible commands and threats they were yelling. They must’ve cleared the venue out in under four minutes, but I somehow managed to give Charlene my pager number. In all the commotion the rides back to the hotel got mixed up, so I jumped in Jeff’s car, along with Red Hot Lover Tone, O.C, and a Source Magazine writer named Jennifer. We exited the parking lot onto a dirt road that led to the highway. I was in the back seat with O.C. and Jennifer, while anxiously anticipating the vibration of my Motorola pager. We were all cracking jokes and laughing about the beef when BLAHKA, BLAHKA, BLAHKA, BLAP! Four shots rang out, from two distinctly different guns.
You can hear tires screeching from behind us, the vehicle’s high beams projected through the dust like two lasers. We knew exactly what was happening, Jeff ducked his head near the gear box, and peeked over the dashboard to avoid the bullets. Jennifer was hysterical, gasping for air and crying profusely. I remember feeling horrible for her; it was obviously her first time being shot at. O.C. tried to calm her down, but she was screaming at the top of her lungs. He pushed her onto the floor and we took cover behind the back seat. You could hear the shooters flooring the gas pedal as they tried to accelerate in order to take closer shots. “DO NOT LET THEM GET BESIDE US!” I yelled. I felt like we couldn’t outrun them especially with them having the advantage of being able to see exactly where they were driving. Jeff decided it was too dangerous to try to outrun these guys without being able to see where he was going. “Fuck this shit!” Jeff said. He sat upright and floored the gas pedal. I poked my head up and caught a glimpse of the speedometer, we were doing at least 100 mph. In one of the most brilliant driving moves that rivaled anything I had seen on The Dukes of Hazzard, Jeff allowed them to match our speed and as soon as they were ready to pull into oncoming traffic to drive alongside our car, he slammed on the breaks and exited the highway. We were thrown around the back of the car, and thrusted against the front seats. Everything switched to slow motion in an instant. It felt like my mind was able to do a slow audio fade on the five separate screaming vocal tracks in the car, just in order to play the solo track of the last three shots they fired, as they sped by yelling, “F U C K . . .Y’ A L L . . . N E W . . . Y O R K . . . N I G G A S!”
We pulled in front of the hotel and ran inside. I’d been in shootouts previously and thought for a split second we might be able to find a bit of humor in the incident. But there were no jokes, no laughter, only stillness and speechlessness. Jennifer’s hysteria and sobbing broke the silence. Someone could’ve been killed, if not from the bullets, definitely from crashing at a high speed. We finally managed to calm her down seconds before the rest of the tour busted into the lobby. Chaos! Everyone was talking at the same time, I needed to think, I needed a drink. The closing elevator door slowly muted the mayhem as the police ran into the lobby. I took a couple of deep breaths, gathered my thoughts for a second, and checked my pager before I pressed my floor.
God must have been disappointed in me. The Virginian sun cut through the blinds like the lord was heating my forehead with a concentrated beam of light through a magnifying glass. I was disappointed in myself; I drank myself to sleep. I laid there on my back wheezing with my eyes closed searching around the bed for my inhaler to no avail, it wasn’t in my pockets. Perhaps it fell out in the car. I popped up and headed downstairs to an empty lobby. The smell of the rich southern dew reminded me of family trips down south to see my grandmother. I stretched and walked out the entrance of the hotel to allow my lungs to experience something they rarely got to enjoy in NYC. The car was parked in the front of the hotel just like I remembered. I could see my inhaler in the back seat but the car doors were locked. I walked gingerly to get the keys from Jeff as not to aggravate my asthma further. When I returned to the car to retrieve my inhaler I noticed four bullet holes in the trunk of the car. When I saw up close how bullets can pierce metal, it put into perspective what actually happens to flesh and bone. I took two hits of my inhaler and popped the trunk. Biz’s records were still inside along with a mixer and flyers for the show. I thumbed through one of the crates for my Eugene McDaniels record when I noticed two of the bullets had penetrated the crate and were still lodged halfway through. My record was destroyed.
I slammed the trunk and ran inside to tell everyone that vinyl may have Saved Our Lives.